A Visit to a Land of Sea and Song: Poetry on North Uist

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It was such a delight to spend a few days on North Uist with the poet Pauline Prior-Pitt at the end of March. She kindly invited me to visit her and the writing group she nurtures at the Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre. Thanks to support from the Scottish Book Trust’s Live Literature Fund, I was able to fly from Glasgow Airport to Benbecula, and in less than an hour I was transported from the big city to an otherworldly dreamscape. With some views reminiscent of a land before or long after mankind or of the time of Noah’s floods, there is somehow more water than land everywhere one looks. A strong wind blew through our hair and the hair of the ponies in a nearby field when Pauline met me at the tiny airport, and our first stop was at a well-stocked local deli to have a look at the map. We then drove on to a lovely hotel in Lochmaddy called Hamersay House (highly recommended – so clean and spacious, and very supportive of my vegan diet!).

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Lochmaddy is also where Taigh Chearsabhagh is, and Pauline took me there for lunch and a tour of the gallery space and teaching spaces where the art college runs its studios and classes, with plenty of gorgeous work-in-progress on display… images of the sea, and art made of stuff washed up by the sea.

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That evening I was back in the gallery to give a reading to an extremely attentive and generous audience, who also took turns reading their own poems and poem choices. I read from my new collection, After Economy, for the first time… it was wonderful that it had its debut in such a remote place! We were treated to a heart-achingly beautiful Gaelic folk song by the writer and singer Cathie Laing, and another highlight was Pauline’s reading of some new sea-inspired poems in which she speaks as the sea, with such sensual and evocative language that I still feel stroked by her sea-words.

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The next day was so rainy that it felt as if the little land there was could all run into the sea at any moment, and we braved the weather and managed to visit a number of fascinating prehistoric and historic sites of interest, exploring brochs, barps and standing stones:

On Saturday I gave a writing workshop about entering into artworks and writing in dialogue with them, and the pieces generated by Pauline’s writing group were brilliant, our conversation stimulating and the general feeling one of joy to be creating together in such a special place. Cathie was in attendance and I was thrilled that at my request she sang us a few more songs to close the session. After another delicious lunch at the gallery we drove off to explore some of the beaches in Berneray, and I’ve never experienced anything quite like it – the white, untouched tracts of sand stretching far into the distance, the crashing aquamarine sea, the icy wind making your body ache and thrill.

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There was something so beautiful but also haunting about the landscape… we found a hill by the sea, surrounded by white sand, covered in grass and sheep dung and sheep bones. One could lose oneself to nature here and it was a humbling experience, especially combined with the knowledge that people had lived and loved and dreamed on that tiny, windswept, loch-laden island for thousands of years.

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We had a wonderful vegan meal with Pauline and her husband Robert that evening, and were impressed by their not one but two artist’s sheds/studios in the back garden and Pauline’s attic ‘Room of One’s Own’. The conversation ranged from personal histories to creativity to philosophy to island life and back again, and it felt we were in a place where time was different and there was endless space to think, also where relationships were so important and community was treasured. Something very striking was the sense that the ages are not separated on the island the way they are in our cities… in the grocery store I saw people of all ages interacting, grannies looking after babies chatting to teenagers in a way that touched me – these people were in community with one another, they lived near one another and knew one another and looked after one another.

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Soon it was time to leave but I’ll keep dreaming of that sea-drenched island with its white beaches, its sandy, lacy frills and hems, its houses of seaweed and shell, and its people full of stories and song.

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Many thanks to Pauline, to everyone who came along to the reading and the writing group, and to Live Literature at the Scottish Book Trust for making it possible.

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Expenses Tip for Live Literature Writers:

This was quite an expensive trip and only made possible because of the generous support of the Live Literature Fund, which is so brilliant because it makes events like this possible in places where it might otherwise be very difficult to bring writers. In line with how the scheme works, I had to buy my plane tickets and food myself and claim that money back after the trip. It’s worth, if possible, trying to plan for these sorts of trips so you’re not in the red for the time between the spending of the money and the reimbursement. Easier said than done, though the SBT is great at processing the expenses claim (thanks Kay and Jackie!). Another tip that I’ve found makes my life easier is to have a separate envelope or folder in my handbag where I put all my expenses and travel receipts, so that it’s quick and easy at the end of the trip to package these up and send them in. In fact, in this instance, as the trip was a more complicated one, I even made a little Excel budget to help me total everything up. Perhaps this is a sign that I’ve been working in arts administration for too long!